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Earliest fish stews were cooked in Japan during last ice age, experts say

Wakasa History and Folklore Museum, Fukui, Japan

Early humans were cooking fish 12,000 years ago in pots like this reconstructed early vessel from Torihama, Japan.

In the chilly final years of the last ice age, hunting communities in Japan may have served up warm fish stews of salmon and shellfish for dinner. 

In charred scrapings from clay pots dating back to the Jomon period 15,000 years ago, scientists found well-preserved traces of fat from marine and freshwater fish and shellfish. The pots themselves are among the oldest clay vessels found anywhere, but until now, no one could confirm what they were used for. 

"It is the oldest example of cooking in pottery," Oliver Craig, a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of York,  told NBC News. Craig is the lead author of a research paper on the pots appearing in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

Even older clay vessels have been found in China, but pinpointing their age has been difficult.

The flakes of burnt pottery have introduced archaeologists to a Stone Age society that stewed their fish and ate it in groups, going against the stereotype of Stone Age humans as hunters and gatherers. The researchers analyzed up to 30 milligrams of burnt remains from 101 vessels that were found at 13 different sites.

Cooking pots would have come in handy as early humans struggled to survive during the last ice age. "It seems like pottery in Japan was innovated during the coldest periods, which is what you might expect," Craig says. Because the oldest pots from the Jomon sites, the pots that date back 15,000 years, are fairly rare, he guesses that fish stewing may have been part of a feasting ritual.

If that's true, the clay vessels didn't merely serve a functional role as cooking vessels. They also brought people together. "I would say that through most of human history, eating has always been an important social activity," Simon Kaner, head of the Center for Archaeology and Heritage at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, told NBC News.

Tokamchi City Museum

This 15,000 year-old pot is from Kubodera-minami, Niigata Prefecture, Japan.

The pots may not have been reserved exclusively for special occasions. "The use of pots would have facilitated such communal meals, as well as experimentation with all sorts of different ways of cooking based on aquatic resources like fish stews," Peter Bogucki, an archaeologist at Princeton University, told NBC News in an email. Bogucki believes the pots may have been part of regular life, especially in the later years of the Jomon period. According to Kaner, the hunters of that period ate a range of natural foods and had a deep knowledge of the plants and animals around them. 

Old clay pots from around the world are gradually revealing the eating habits of ancient people. Neolithic cattle-rearing communities in Europe made soft, unfermented cheese 7,500 years ago in sieve-like pots. Fragments of those vessels found in Poland contained incriminating traces of milk fats. Similarly, traces of dairy fat from vessels found in Africa suggests that humans began making yogurt on that continent around the same time. 

More on ancient eating habits: 

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and technology. Follow her on Twitter and Google+